Genre and Periodization in the History of European Political Thought

Written by: Tyler Lange


Political Thought in the Renaissance and Reformation

Tyler Lange, the author of The First French Reformation, traces European political thought through the 15th to 17th centuries in search of continuity.


Popular histories of political thought often seem to hop from the Greeks to the Renaissance, perhaps with an excursus to Aquinas. When I set out to write The First French Reformation: Church Reform and the Origins of the Old Regime, my first goal was to bridge the gap between medieval and early modern so as to find more convincing antecedents for sixteenth-century thought about the polity in France. I felt previous attempts to connect the political thought of the “Renaissance” to that of the “Reformation” to be unconvincing because of the anachronistic and narrow ways in which they imagined the content and relation of these fields of research. There are two stumbling blocks, one of periodization and one of genre, that distort our understanding of thought about the polity between 1400 and 1600.

Was political thought only to be found in humanist treatises during this Reformation-before-the-Reformation?

My study of the Parlement of Paris, the appellate court for much of Northern France, illustrates how “medieval” jurists’ debates encouraged the development of “early modern” conceptions of royal power. It addresses the first, disciplinary problem, a problem rooted in the division of European historians into medievalists and early modernists. That different historians study different periods (with few crossing over the medieval-early modern boundary, excepting scholars of the Renaissance who nevertheless tend to feel themselves to be early modernists) reinforces the underexamined presumption that the “medieval” fifteenth century differed greatly from the “early modern” sixteenth century. In fact, scholars now situate the Protestant Reformation in the context of a more general redefinition of the Christian faith common to all confessions between 1400 and 1700.

Was political thought only to be found in humanist treatises during this Reformation-before-the-Reformation? Here my study addresses the stumbling block of genre: for France there is no clear fifteenth-century counterpart to the canonical texts of sixteenth-century political thought such as Claude de Seyssel’s tidy Grant Monarchie de France or Jean Bodin’s Six Livres de la République. The antecedents of absolutist political thought are to be found in the more rebarbative genre of the legal commentary. Although Paul Ourliac observed in 1961 that sixteenth-century constitutional debates recapitulated fifteenth-century debates on papal authority, although Ralph Giesey demonstrated in 1970 Bodin’s debt to medieval jurisprudence, although Joseph Canning synthesized in 1987 the political thought of Baldus de Ubaldis on the basis of his commentaries, still in 2008 was it necessary for Patrick Arabeyre to remind historians that there was much “undeclared” political thought in late medieval French faculties of canon law. The arguments for expanded monarchical power found in late medieval jurists, canonists in particular, afforded the judges of the Parlement justifications for expanding the scope of royal authority. The consequent practices of royal authority inspired much absolutist political thought.

How could it have been otherwise? Between 1400 and 1600 the form of the visible Church and its proper relations with secular polities were up for debate. The Great Western Schism and heterodoxies from Lollardy to Lutheranism challenged medieval ways of thinking about the ecclesiastical polity. Debates among late medieval jurists shaped how the judges of the Parlement of Paris and the ministers of Francis I went about their business of justifying and implementing expansive claims of royal authority — just not in a predictable way. Although papal and royal absolutism would seem to have gone hand-in-hand, it was the impetus to religious reform embedded in ecclesiastical constitutionalism that allowed for the triumph of absolute monarchy in sixteenth-century France. Modern states developed in consequence not of the secularization of society but of the sacralization of secular polities, a phenomenon common to all Reformations, Protestant and Catholic.

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About the Author: Tyler Lange

Tyler Lange is the author of The First French Reformation....

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